“Toratau geopark can become a flagship of destruction of natural territories under the aegis of their development”

Saving the geo-heritage without destroying it: political analyst Karina Gorbacheva's column

Bashkiria authorities want to include Toratau Geopark in UNESCO list of geoparks. However, the international organization, valuing its reputation, may refuse them because of the situation with Kushtau Mount, which is part of the natural complex Bashkir Shikhans, according to political expert and columnist of Realnoe Vremya, Karina Gorbacheva. It is Kushtau, at the suggestion of head of Bashkiria Radiy Khabirov, that the Bashkir soda company is going to develop. Local residents have already received a warning about the beginning of exploration work on Shihan. In the column for Realnoe Vremya, Gorbacheva explains why the question of the future of unique mountains is not a regional problem but a federal one.

The other day, Ufa hosted the international forum of urbanism. Although urban science studies the development of urban ecosystems, one of the sections was dedicated to preserving the natural and historical and cultural heritage of Bashkortostan. The name was chosen promising and even frightening — 'Toratau — the flagship of the development of unique natural territories'. How could the section on the second future UNESCO Geopark in Russia frighten specialists and ordinary citizens?

Saving geo heritage through geopark

Toratau Geopark is a possible nominee for the status of the second Russian UNESCO Geopark. There are good reasons for this — it is located on the territory of two world — famous shikhans — Toratau and Yuraktau. Ancient reefs hidden all over the world under the earth and only in Bashkiria protruding above its surface — a place truly unique and requiring special treatment. It can be achieved through the creation of a specially protected natural area (which was done back in the 1980s), as well as through the creation of the structure such as UNESCO Geopark. The status of geopark is not legal and does not have the force of law, but if such park is under the aegis of an international structure, then its very brand can be an obstacle to encroaching on a unique object — few people want to get involved in an international scandal.

View of Kushtau and Yurkatau. Photo: vk.com/saveshihan

It is important that the geopark is needed not only to preserve the geo heritage but also to promote it. This is how the UNESCO network of global geoparks works: the special status gives the opportunity to spread information about a geological object to the whole world and attract scientists, students and ordinary people from different countries to get acquainted with it. The creators of geoparks from this network work closely together, exchange experience and improve their work. Bashkiria in this case has become the locomotive of all Russia, since it is here Yangan-Tau Geopark was launched, which was the first in the country to be included in the UNESCO network.

The preservation and popularisation of geo heritage is a good and worthy goal. But, as you know, good intentions are a subjective phenomenon, and they cannot be the only criterion for evaluating the final result. In the case of Bashkir shikhans, it is necessary to judge their conservation not by the fact that the geopark will be nominated or included in the UNESCO network but by whether the unique natural complex will be preserved in its integrity. Current events signal the opposite.

A fly in the ointment

Bashkir Shikhans natural complex is a phenomenon in every sense of the word. It is not enough for humanity that there are no such places in the world. It adds to his uniqueness by its actions: to split the whole into parts, one of which to magnify, and the other to destroy. This is what they do in relation to the Bashkir reefs: the Toratau and Yuraktau mountains are saved by all means, and in relation to the rest they apply the position “after us, the flood”. Such present has befallen the Shakhtau reef, and such future is being prepared for the most beautiful and, at the same time, the largest reef Kushtau.

View of Kushtau and Yurkatau. Photo: vk.com/saveshihan

One would be happy to see a nominee for the second UNESCO Geopark in Russia, if it were not for the understanding that this geopark is a cover for the destruction of a unique geo heritage. This destroys not a single mountain but the unique unity of the natural complex. This is the same as if the 19 towers of the Kremlin were included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the Trinity Tower was left for a brick for some oligarch or for sale abroad.

Perhaps hypocrisy regarding the unique natural complex is known to representatives of the UNESCO global network of geoparks. This may be indirectly indicated by the refusal of foreign guests to come personally to the forum in Russia, as well as the absence of some of them at the event, even in an online format.

This position is quite understandable — supporting the inclusion of a geopark with such “background”, foreign members of UNESCO will cast a shadow on their offspring. “Does French Beaujolais Geopark hide the development of a unique mountain?" tourists would think, recalling the incident with Toratau Geopark. If it is included in UNESCO network, the reputation of the network that preserves the geo heritage will be damaged once and for all.

Next, residents of nearby villages received notifications from Syryevaya Kompaniya JSC that “the works will not affect the conditions of your residence in the village, will not have a negative impact on the usual way of life”. Photo: vk.com/southbashkortostan

Regionsising the problem, or litotisation à la Russian

Forum members left the region, and residents voted for the future the Constitution — now nothing prevents to begin development in Kushtau. Apparently, this is what the future developers of the mountain want to convey to the local population. Almost immediately after the forum and voting, there was evidence of logging, which in the spring was removed from the zone where logging is prohibited. Next, residents of nearby villages received notifications from Syryevaya Kompaniya JSC (together with BSK — part of Bashkhim holding — editor's note) that “the works will not affect the conditions of your residence in the village, will not have a negative impact on the usual way of life”. The text of the “calming” ad from the mining company subtly substitutes the notions — the impact “on the environment” has been turned into the impact on “everyday life”. Diggers promise that “living conditions in settlements” will not change, forgetting to warn about the main thing — that the particularly valuable forest and the world-famous, unique natural object will disappear outside of settlements.

Downplaying the significance of what is happening is typical of the Shihan story. From the very beginning, the question of the future complex of these mountains was presented as a regional problem, even of a local nature. “The threat of closing the city-forming enterprise”, “Khamitov's resignation as an inability to solve the raw material problem of the plant” — the problem of the Bashkir shikhans has been repeatedly suggested to be perceived as a special case that is not related to Russia as a whole, and especially of global significance. Even now, industrialists are following a well-trodden path, deliberately underestimating the significance of the development of Kushtau, reducing it to a paradoxical “village” level.

However, no matter how much you hide a cat in a bag, you can't hide it. No matter how strong the information resources of industrial lobbyists are, the problem still makes itself felt, and in the most unexpected places. However, the story with Toratau Geopark already reveals the inconsistency of the situation, like a boil. “The flagship of the development of unique natural territories”, as the Bashkortostan government is trying to present Toratau Geopark, should make you wary. After all, if such processes are accompanied by one of the first geoparks in Russia (and now only a few geoparks have been created in the country: Altai, Yangan-Tau, Undoria), what can we expect from the rest? The current situation shows that this geopark can become a flagship for the destruction of natural territories under the aegis of their development. And if this turns out to be true, then this is not only a regional problem.

By Karina Gorbacheva

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.